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Migrate--or starve

By Aditya Malaviya and Sushmita Malaviya

Tikamgarh, in Madhya Pradesh, has been experiencing its third successive year of drought. Migration and contract labour is the only option. Some travel to Delhi or Jammu with only the phone number of a contractor looking for labour. Others don’t have even that, and simply camp outside urban railway stations until a contractor picks them up. Only the old and the very young are left in the deserted villages



When people make puris in Jatara block, Tikamgarh district, it’s not because they have something to celebrate. The well-known Indian delicacy associated with weddings and celebrations has a different connotation here. So, when 25-year-old Sunita started to make puris, her neighbours silently chipped in to help her. For the villagers of Shahpur, Jatara block, it was clear enough indication that the family was about to move.

Rani Bai says: “Our self-help group is called Banjari Mata, and like the other five members of my group Sunita, her husband Ramsori and their son have left for Agra in search of work.” She adds: “When I last met her, she said there was nothing left for them to do in the village and they were just not able to make ends meet and support themselves. So they decided to leave for Agra, where Ramsori will drive a rickshaw and Sunita will look for work as a domestic help.”

How much would Sunita Bai make as a domestic help? “I can only guess, but we think she will be able to earn about Rs 1,500 per month. It all depends… And I don’t know about her husband’s earnings, since that too will depend on how many sawaris (passengers) he can manage to get in a day.”

Rajji Bai of Pira village, Rajnagar block, who took a loan to dig a well on her land, under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), says: “Migration is better than facing starvation in the village. My two sons have migrated to Delhi in search of work, and to sustain us. If it were not for the money they send, we would almost certainly have starved.”

“My only son, Kishor (30), his wife and eight-year-old son have migrated to Jammu in search of work, after the drought forced them off their field,” adds 60-year-old Kamli Bai of the same village. “They have left behind their one-year-old daughter. I do manual labour to support my family, including my disabled husband.”

Just another day in the lives of the people of Tikamgarh, that has been experiencing its third year of drought and what it brings in its wake -- families torn apart by forced migration, deserted villages, longer treks in search of water, hunger, crime, lonely children and helpless old folk (left behind either because they are a liability in big towns like Delhi and Gurgaon, or because someone has to look after the livestock), and growing exasperation with the administrative machinery.      

Seasonal migration in Bundelkhand has conventionally been understood to be a result of extreme poverty, whereby villagers are forced to become migrants for the dry six months to subsist or merely survive. But it has taken on alarming overtones in the recent past, with increasingly large numbers of people migrating as a result of back-to-back drought. While the average annual rainfall in the district is around 1,000 mm, in 2004 and 2005 the region received 625 mm of rain. In 2006, the amount of rainfall received till the last week of September was only 380 mm. Farmers were barely able to get a yield from their first kharif crop, and there was never any possibility of sowing a rabi crop. Consequently, after the scarce monsoon, there was no work available for wage labourers.

People who migrated did not return for months -- even years -- at a stretch, afraid that others would take over their jobs once they had left. And people are going further and further away -- to Jammu, Gujarat, Mumbai -- as opposed to neighbouring districts as was the case earlier. Because of this, only the fittest are able to make the journey and thus, in a perverse form of survival of the fittest, the old, the sick and the very young are left behind in the villages, along with the livestock. Visit any one of these villages and you will see young children and old people everywhere. No young men and women.

The people left behind manage on stocks of food and fodder left behind, survive on whatever they are able to cobble together from their earnings as manual labourers, the benevolence of neighbours, or simply by begging. Then there are those, like 80-year-old Saguniya, who do not even have the strength to beg. Saguniya just waits for some kind soul to take pity on her and give her something to eat.

While those with marginal landholdings have been migrating for several years, those with larger holdings are forced to sow on less and less land, as almost everyone here is dependent on rainfall for the harvest. And it has not rained here for three years…

Rani Bai says: “The last time my family was able to have two crops was three years ago!”

Chaturbhuj, Rani Bai’s husband, is educated and owns almost 10 acres of land in the village. Still, he says, last year he planted channa and peas hoping to get a good yield and make some money. He did not plant wheat. “I never buy wheat because we always get what we want from our land. Last year, I thought I would get a good price for my cash crops, so I left wheat out of the crop mix. I now regret it. I do not have wheat for my family. Only a few days ago, because the PDS shop is non-existent in our village, I was forced to buy 10-12 quintals of wheat at an exorbitant Rs 12 per kg! And PDS wheat is sold at Rs 2 per kg.” He says he hates it when his wife has to go away in search of work, not because he misses her but because the only mulch cow they own won’t let him milk her!  

Despite the extremely poor rainfall over the past three years, ad hoc local declarations of drought continue, with the government disbursing only a semblance of drought aid annually. Still there is no uniformly-applied definition of drought. Objective approaches to drought alleviation tend to be confounded by political interests. A variety of figures have been reported for expenditure on drought relief, thanks to differences in budget requests, initial allocations, supplementary allocations, cost components and records of expenditure! And so the story continues… 

In 2007, a survey was carried out in 10 villages of Chattarpur district, Rajnagar block, Madhya Pradesh, by Kamlesh, a volunteer working with the NGO Sambhav. The survey shed more light on the drought, migration and the failure of the PDS in the region. The surveyed villages were within 20 km of the block office, and connected either by pucca or kutcha roads. A total of 3,265 households were covered. It was found that of the 3,265 households, 59% had already migrated to places as far away as Delhi and Jammu looking for jobs; 44% of the migrants were female, of which 32% belonged to scheduled castes, 10% were scheduled tribe members and 4% were from other communities. Of the 56% migrants who were men, 38% belonged to scheduled castes, 10% to scheduled tribes, and 6% were from other communities.

Similarly, out of the total number of migrants, 70% were scheduled caste members, 20% belonged to scheduled tribes, and only 10% were from other communities. Despite a number of welfare programmes for SC/STs, migration in terms of sheer numbers was highest amongst these communities. 

For most migrants, the journey starts with a phone call from people who have been to Delhi, Gurgaon or Jammu before and already have the phone numbers of contractors who need labourers to do manual work. In times of desperation, someone calls up a contractor in, say, Jammu, who then tells him the number of people he can take on, the travel destination and the kind of work available. He instructs the villagers when and where to arrive, and who to bring with them. These are the lucky ones. Others just book themselves on the first available train to Delhi, where they camp outside Nizammuddin railway station waiting for contractors to pick them up.  

For those travelling by bus, the journey usually begins around 4 pm in the evening, when the contractor arranges for a truck or bus to pick them up directly from the village through a local contact. They reach Delhi at around 6-7 am the following day; throughout the long journey they have to fend for themselves. Therefore the puris.

Once they’ve managed to get a job in the city, life is still far from easy. Forty-three-year-old Ratnalal says: “Often, after working for several days in a city like Delhi, the contractor suddenly just disappears with our money. This means that we have to move too since there’s no work left. Then we are at the mercy of other contractors in the area.”

Most migrants have to survive on money that the contractor gives them for food and other expenses. A skilled mason could earn up to Rs 120-150 a day, while a manual labourer around Rs 60-70 a day.     

Chitia Bai of the Manimata self-help group says four people have migrated from her group of 10. “Most of them will be away for nearly a month-and-a-half. Often, women do not even have money to pay for their bus fare, so they borrow from other group members and only repay them when they return with some money, several months later. Usually, it is an amount anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 200.”

There is a routine to departures from the village. Ajab Bai of Bijrotha village explains: “People cannot stay in the village throughout the year. What will they eat if they do that? So, many women and their families migrate in rotation. I went as far as my money would take me.”

Most households report changes in adult membership due to the drought. The migration of adults from households is abnormally high, and, in most villages, the search for food is the most common reason given for movement out of the village. Most villages are almost 90% empty; there are abnormally high numbers of women and children.

Sixty-year-old Hasmat Khan says he has never seen a drought of this magnitude in all his life. “Have you heard of a mango tree drying up? No? Come, let me show you one,” he says, agitatedly pointing to a dry mango tree that still stands near the dry village well. “Look what is happening in our village. No water, no crops, no food -- and no government help to speak of!” There is no talk of rehabilitation of disused or faulty boreholes, provision of new boreholes, extension of pipelines, or the provision of tanker services to disadvantaged rural communities.

When crop production or household income declines, rural households can usually draw on alternative sources of cash or food, such as livestock sales, asset sales, or borrowings. However, most people report that even coping strategies like reductions in non-food expenditure and rationing aren’t helping any more. When livestock survival is threatened by drought, they say, the only option is to sell some animals and buy feed and/or move some animals. In many villages, farmers have sold some or all of their livestock over the period of the drought. Even here, farmers say they are unable to sell off their cattle because of the poor state they are in!

Twenty-five kilometres from Jatara, in the village of Ghotet, only the very young, the old and infirm and those holding government jobs remain.

Kunjilal, a government teacher at the Lidoria primary school, is the only scheduled tribe member left in the village -- the rest have all migrated. Similarly, Chunnalal says there is no work in the village and people have opted to go to Jalgaon, Delhi, Gwalior, Punjab, Agra and Gurgaon in search of work. Nobody returns earlier than three or four months, or when they have saved some money. Rambai says: “Only those who do not have an option are left in the village.”

Interestingly, everyone in the village has an NREGA job card, but the people left behind say that despite several attempts, sarpanch Lodhi Kumar has not accepted their applications for work, saying that the CEO of the zilla panchayat had instructed him not to take in applications for work.

Our group is soon joined by two small children, Anand and Mamata. The villagers explain that the siblings study in Class VI and V respectively and have been left behind in the village by their parents. The children show us their home. It’s locked. How do they manage, we ask. Seema Soure says: “They are being looked after by a cousin in the family. Someone or other in the village always gives them something to eat. That is how things work.”

Anand says he has relatives who look after their everyday needs. Ask him when his parents will return, and he looks away. “After the harvest season, probably,” he says with a distant look in his eyes...

As we leave, the villagers plead: “Please do something about the midday meals in our schools. We could have at least prevented out children from starving, but there is so much corruption that the children have not been given a decent meal in school for as long as we can remember.”

 (Aditya Malaviya is a Bhopal-based journalist and researcher. Sushmita Malaviya is an activist and researcher on developmental issues. She is based in Lucknow)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008